Virginia Opera A Streetcar Named DesireBy Bob Ashby • Mar 7th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Virginia Opera: (Info) (Web)
George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, VA
Closed March 3rd
3:05 with two intermissions
Reviewed March 1st, 2013
With this weekend’s performances at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, Virginia Opera concluded its presentation of Andre Previn’s adaptation of the classic Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire. (Previous weekends were in Norfolk and Richmond.) The libretto, by Phillip Littell, closely follows Williams’ script.
One of the hoariest of theater clichés is that actors should speak the text while playing the subtext. Previn’s varied music — there are echoes of jazz, Britten, Ives, Puccini, and Broadway in the score, among other things — carries the emotion of the characters’ subtexts to the audience in a particularly direct way. The music conveys, beyond the power of words alone, Blanche’s longing and increasing disorientation, Stanley’s resentment, Stella’s sexuality, and Mitch’s loneliness and need. There are times when the music is the action. Most notably, the agitated sounds in an orchestral interlude provide almost all the feeling in the inertly staged rape scene. (Helfrich’s staging may be ambiguous as to the nature of Stanley’s assault; the music is not.)
Conductor Ari Pelto’s orchestra handles the eclectic score expertly, with tempi and dynamics well suited to balance the singers and to underscore the rapidly changing moods and actions of the characters. There are particularly nice solo moments for flute and trumpet.
Previn gives three of his leads relatively short, but beautifully written, arias. As Blanche, soprano Kelly Cae Hogan lyrically describes Blanche’s philosophy of life in Act 3’s “I Want Magic,” and gives perfect expression of William’s view of the intersection of the Desire and Cemeteries lines in “I Can Smell the Sea Air.” Julia Ebner, as Stella, also a soprano, has a wordless aria in Act 2 that is as good a sung depiction of the liniments of satisfied desire as one can imagine. Finally, as Mitch, tenor Scott Ramsay has a lovely moment at the end of Act 2 as he sings of his hopes for ending his lonely existence through loving Blanche. Of the four major characters, Stanley, played by baritone David Adam Moore, is the only one to whom Previn does not give an aria. This seems a smart choice, as giving Stanley a few minutes of lyric beauty would be difficult to square with his character. All the singers are excellent; there were no evident faults from any of them.
Notwithstanding these moments, the opera is not particularly aria-heavy, with a great deal of sung dialogue, similar to what would find in much of 20th century opera (Streetcar was first performed in 1998). This style relies more heavily on the acting skills of the singers than traditional 19th century pieces, and there is some interesting acting in the production. Moore shows less raw animal magnetism than one often thinks of Stanley as possessing, reducing the character’s sexual power and danger. He wisely underplays the iconic “Stella!” moment. But his Stanley is more intelligent and rational than the norm, even a bit self-aware at times. While a lout who is unconscionably cruel to Blanche, this Stanley’s cruelty stems from a conscious pursuit of his interests as he sees them. Other than Stella, the one woman who might appreciate him is Ayn Rand.
One thoughtful touch that director Sam Helfrich gives Stanley’s characterization is in the first scene, when Stanley appears in full military uniform as Stella describes to Blanche the Master Sergeant in the Army engineers with whom she fell in love. This throws an interpretive shaft of light on Stanley’s pervasive anger. The play takes place in 1947. Like the three main characters in 1946’s The Best Years of their Lives, Stanley has successfully done his part in the biggest, most important event his generation will ever see, and he has been recognized for it with rank and decorations. On top of his existing class resentments, he has returned home to a boring factory job and lives in a downscale part of town. While neither Williams’ script nor Littell’s libretto makes an explicit point of it, his difficulty in making the emotional transition to the quotidian routines of civilian life provides some insight into how he behaves toward Stella and Blanche. No longer a valuable cog in the greatest military machine ever assembled, he at least can be “king” in his own apartment, and – in his mind – justifiably resentful when Blanche invades his domain, even to the point of shutting him out of his own bathroom and forcing him to be quiet during sex.
Physically and vocally (the latter a necessity to carry the musical demands of the role), Hogan is an unusually robust Blanche. Not for her the renowned frailty of Tennessee Williams’ women. Her lies and illusions are the weapons she uses to fight against the cascading series of losses that have marked her life. Even in her ultimate mental breakdown she maintains a kind of dignity as she begins to live full-time in a magic world that will not hurt and betray her as the reality of Laurel, Mississippi, and the Kowalskis’ apartment has done.
Previn and Littell give Stella a lovely device to frame her evolving relationship with Stanley. In Act I, she proclaims her passionately intense, sexual attachment to her husband; she can’t stand to be without him for a night. (In their scenes together, most of the sexual chemistry seems to flow from Ebner rather than Moore.) In Act III, she expresses, using similar music, her intense maternal attachment to her new baby, then sleeping in another apartment until Blanche can be packed off to the asylum. She can’t bear to be without him. In the final scene, Ebner portrays better than I remember from productions of the play I’ve seen Stella’s knowing denial of Stanley’s assault on Blanche. Like her sister, Stella too must begin to live in a world of lies and illusions in order to hold onto what is dearest to her.
Of all the leads, Ramsay is the most perfectly cast. In addition to his musical qualifications, his Mitch becomes a large, shambling, socially awkward fellow, whose sweetness and kinder instincts are never quite a match for his domination by his mother and his peers, particularly Stanley. He genuinely cares for Blanche, and his desolation in the final scene, sitting alone at the table as Blanche is led off by the doctor, is one of the evening’s most moving moments. Stanley, Stella, and Eunice (Martha Gawrysiak in a fine character performance) sit silently on the couch, side-by-side; it is clear that, despite Stanley’s wishes, their lives will also never be the same.
Andromache Chalifant’s set is simple, consisting of a gray room with six doorways surrounding a platform on which sit a kitchen table, sofa, and Blanche’s trunk (representing keys to the characters Stella, Stanley, and Blanche, respectively, in Helfrich’s concept as he has explained it). Helfrich deploys supernumeraries (opera lingo for extras) in the doorways in various scenes to represent servants in Blanche’s imagined Bell Reve or Blanche’s memory of her dead husband and his illicit lover. Lighting designer Aaron Black shines a diffuse swath of light across the stage right portion of the set and illuminates the doorways sometimes in bright white light and other times in softer colors. Black also makes good use of shadows in the main playing area, in tune with Blanche’s preference for darkness, starkly contrasting with situations in which other characters tear a red paper lantern from a light bulb to bathe her in bright, garish light.
In his pre-show talk, Glenn Winters appeared to ask the audience’s patience with what he thought they might think was overly modern, inaccessible music. People who go to see future productions of this opera need not worry. The music is not nearly as strange, and is far more accessible and emotionally direct, than people who know only 18th or 19th century opera might imagine. This was a worthy production of an opera that, like the play upon which it is based, should remain in the active repertory for a long time to come.
- Blanche DuBois: Kelly Cae Hogan
- Stanley Kowalski: David Adam Moore
- Stella Kowalski: Julia Ebner
- Harold Mitchell: Scott Ramsay
- Eunice Hubbell: Margaret Gawrysiak
- Steve Hubbell: Matthew DiBattista
- A Young Collector: Drew Duncan
- Mexican Woman: Sondra Gelb
- Nurse: Hilary Ginther
- Doctor: Patrick O’Halloran
- Pablo Gonzales: Edward Hanlon
- Conductor: Ari Pelto
- Stage Director: Sam Helfrich
- Scenic Designer: Andromache Chalfant
- Costume Designer: Kaye Voyce
- Lighting Designer: Aaron Black
- Wig And Make Up Designer: James McGough
Disclaimer: George Mason University Center for the Arts provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9191.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.